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Correlativity and the embedded self

21 August 2013

With all my research on the history of rights theory I’ve also been doing thinking about rights theory itself. I’ve commented a couple of times that today we understand human rights to operate in a moral ontology usually called the ‘correlativity thesis.’ The correlativity thesis holds that rights correlate to duties. Another to say it is that every right of one person corresponds to a duty of another or others. To use the language of Thomas Mautner, rights claims are thus reducible to and rephrasable as duty claims. Therefore the rights claim ‘Socrates has a right to free speech’ is equivalent to the duty claim ‘No one may interfere with Socrates’ speech.’ This, to borrow an idea from J.B. Schneewind, means that rights exist only within a community where they are recognised. Another way to say this might be: you have no human rights.

Rights language has a long and complex history (which is a big part of my research) but there only a few points that are really key to understanding my point. Until the writings of Jeremy Bentham and the rise of his brand of utilitarianism, rights were based on natural law. God, in this theory, has endowed humanity with certain categories of inviolable powers, categories of action which we can undertake. In many of these natural law theories, the line between moral natural necessity and moral law is less than perfectly clear. The latest flowering of these theories was in the German and Scottish Enlightenments, where natural law theories, inherited primarily from the Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius, who leaned heavily upon the scholastic thinkers of 16th and 17th century Portugal, Castile, and Aragon. The Scottish and German thinkers took these ideas in very different directions but they shared an emphasis on basing their ideas in humanity’s nature. The Scottish school also gave birth to one of the moral philosophies which would eventually unseat natural law: utilitarianism. Scottish Christian utilitarianism, which was a component of a larger system of natural legal thought, did not survive, but it did form part of the conceptual and linguistic background of the Benthamite utilitarianism which would bequeath to the modern Euro-Atlantic world its understandings of rights. Parallel to the post-Grotian natural law tradition was the social contract tradition, which appropriate Grotius’ language of rights in a unique way: it conceived of humans as monads who sacrifice certain natural powers (called iure, or ‘rights’) for the security and opportunity provided by society in what is called the ‘social contract.’

It is from Grotius, his German interpreter Pufendorf, and the Scottish natural legalists that we have inherited our language of rights. It is from Bentham and his utilitarian tradition that we inherited our moral ontology of rights, our beliefs about how rights actually operate in the world. It is from the social contract school that we have inherited our understanding of how the social order that rights exist within, works (or at least should work).

The biggest problem with this is that the rights language we use is taken from a fundamental moral perspective which we no longer popularly hold: moral realism. We no longer accept that there is some objective moral order exterior to us which we discern. We moderns of the the Euro-Atlantic are, almost to a man (woman, non-gender binary person, etc.), either utilitarians (usually of the hedonist, eudaimonistic, or preference variety) or a sort of emotivistic Kantians. We make our moral for ourselves. The problem is that we also enshrined them in law and we did it in terms that are flatly at odds with our current reality. While a full textual breakdown of, say, the UN Declaration on Human Rights isn’t what I’m doing here, sufficed to say that ‘rights’ as the UNDHR is more in line with the natural law theories of the Scottish Enlightenment and the social contract theories of Locke and Rousseau than the community-based civil rights model of the correlativity thesis. In short, we use the language of human rights but we don’t believe in them.

We still think we do, though, because it still sounds like we do. That’s because the language of our social imaginary, our fundamental conception of how our society works, suits that language but is at odds with our beliefs. We think of ourselves as signatories to the social contract, as sovereign entities who have sacrificed our natural freedoms for the benefits of living in society. We think we have made a trade: I give you all my rights and you all give me safety, security, and opportunity. But we’re lying to ourselves. We aren’t monads. We don’t enter as free agents into the human community; without the human community, we are not. The human self is not a free one, it is an embedded one.

The only right outside the human community is the Hobbesian right: the right of the strong, of the war of all against all. But that’s not what we mean by the word. When we say ‘rights’ we mean to get at something ethical, not just some reflection of might. But those ethical standards we enshrine as rights have no ground outside the communities in which they are recognised. Can anyone posit for me the ontological basis of the right to life, the right to property, or the right to bodily integrity? No, rights exist only within our communities. All rights, in other words, are civil rights.

But don’t despair. You don’t need rights outside of community because outside of community, there is no you. There is no monadic self who gained their rights upon signing onto the social contract. The self is born and lives and dies embedded in a complex web of social structures and relationships. Outside of them we are not. And we have no need of rights when are not.

So what, you ask, is the basis of these civil rights? That’s one for another day, I think.


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